The more things stay the same

May 4th 2006

William is a rock-solid classic that has never slipped from the top 20 list of American boys' names. But behind that steady facade lurks a wild up-and-down fashion ride. Because until recently, boys named William weren't actually called William. They were Will or Willie, Bill or Billy -- and nickname fashion is fickle.

A century ago the W nicknames of William ruled, so much so that they became hit names on their own. Incredibly, the given name Willie was more popular in 1910 than any name is today. By the 20s, though, the tide was turning. Bill was the more contemporary choice, and it became one of the standard casual names of the mid-20th century.

Then the late '60s hit, and Bill began a freefall. With the generation gap widening, a standard guy of your father's or grandfather's era was just not cool. All the mainstream classics were affected, but their nicknames most dramatically. Names like Bill, Jim and Bob fell off a cliff, as nicknames and given names.

And today? William is still holding on as a popular given name, but the everyday form of the name has splintered. In some families, old-fashioned Will is making a comeback. Others are demanding the full William. And a growing few are using the truncated Irish form Liam as a nickname. You can see it all playing out in the stats:

The real cultural shift is probably even bigger than it looks, because the graph only counts given names. When your given name falls out of fashion, you live with it. A nickname is easier to change, so chances are a lot of young Bills turned themselves into Wills or Williams during their teenage years. (And even more Dicks became Ricks.) All of which points to a funny fact about classic names: one way to stay steady and timeless is by changing with the times.


By Elizabeth (not verified)
May 5, 2006 12:20 PM

Of the six boys in my son's playgroup (all born in Aug. and Sept. of 2004), there are two Liams and a William. I think you're on to something!

By Cathie (not verified)
May 5, 2006 1:21 PM

This describes naming in the Netherlands. Children traditionally are named after their grandparents (then aunts and uncles) but are also given a "called name" (the name they will go by) by their parents. It's often but not necessarily the nickname version of the name - and those nicknames change with the times. So on their birth certificate most of them are officially old passed-down-the-generation names like "Jacobus", "Johannes", and "Cornelius" but they go by Jaap or Jan/Johan or Cor/Corne/Kees. Birth announcements and baby books typically say "Our child is named X, called name Y".

I guess we do the same thing more informally here!

By Becky (not verified)
May 5, 2006 9:08 PM

We have had four consecutive Williams in my family. My grandfather, born in 1909, was Bill. My father, born in 1940, was Billy, then Bill once he went to college. My brother, born in 1969, is also William, but he goes by his middle name as to not confuse him with my father. His son, born in 1998, is called Will.

Interesting how this nicknaming process has almost died out - in the 70s and 80s, every William was Bill, every Michael was Mike, every Robert was Bob, every Joseph was Joe, every David was Dave, every Richard was Rick, etc. I wonder if the rise of Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan helped end this trend?

By Karen (not verified)
May 6, 2006 1:03 PM

I took a look at the girls name Elizabeth and associated nick names:
Elizabeth (usually top 10, slipped to 23 in the 1940's)
Libbie, Lizzie, Bess, & Bessie (TOC= Turn of the Century)
Betty (30's)
Betsy (50's)
Lisa, Liz & Beth(60's)
Liza (TOC & 70's)
Elisa & Elisabeth (80's)
Eliza & Libby (TOC,now), Elise(now)

My sister was Elizabeth and went by Lisa (born in 1964), My niece is Elizabeth and goes by Elise (4 years old), I know a Betsy with original name Elizabeth who is 40+ years old.

By 'Stro (not verified)
May 6, 2006 1:37 PM

I've thought for quite a while that William was one of the most all-purpose names as far as nickname options go. That way if the kid doesn't like being William, he can choose something else, and his parents also can choose from a variety of nicknames when he is young.

By Ellie (not verified)
May 6, 2006 4:28 PM

Hey-i love your blog!! i am really interested in nickname trends...maybe you could do another entry just on nicknames....thanks so much!!

By Patricia (not verified)
May 7, 2006 12:49 AM

My newest grandson, born April 26, is named William ("Will"). His older brothers are Joseph and Ethan. I was very happy with the name my son and D-I-L chose for their third son (after my DIL considered some trendy names). Our family has favored traditional names for boys for the past two generations. My sons are Edward ("Ted"), John, Robert, James and Michael. (My husband and I raised 9 children, 2 born to us and 7 adopted.) In the past 4 3/4 years we have been blessed with 8 new grandbabies--all boys: Aidan, Joseph, twins James & Andrew, Ethan, Christopher, David (born in March 2006) and now William. Granddaughters born to our family are sisters Sarah (21), Catrina ("Cate") (18), Emma (16) & Sophia ("Sophie") (10). I have been 'studying' name etymology and following naming trends for 40 years. I find naming fascinating and am particularly drawn to names with history. William is a great name, and I'm glad we have a little William in our family!

By Patricia (not verified)
May 7, 2006 12:55 AM

PS Our daughters are Catherine, Julianne, Jennifer (yes, Jennifer--called "Jenny", adopted from Korea at age 10, with a Korean name similar to Jenny), and Susanna.

By Marcos (not verified)
May 8, 2006 11:03 AM

Names are changing everything. All names bring a own history that can be felt when we read it, when we write it or when we say it. Thebabynamewizard gets the power and soul of a each name.
And it we all be joined in the internet, so that we will have millions of names to avoid overlaping. So let nameaction it all ( or just nomer it (

Think about it!

By Rocky (not verified)
May 8, 2006 8:54 PM

I wonder if Becky's experience isn't fairly common. I'm familiar with a family that for several generations has given ALL its males William as a first name. They've long since run out of diminutives for William, so all the men are known by their middle names. Maybe that attachment to one name is a bit extreme. But it makes naming boy babies easier.

By Becky (not verified)
May 9, 2006 2:22 AM

I forgot to mention that all four of the Williams had the same middle name: William Scott Lastname. Also, no more than three of the Williams were alive at the same time. My grandfather (Bill Sr.) died before my nephew (Will) was born.

I'm fully expecting someday to have a great nephew, William Scott Lastname V, called Liam.

By mjohnson (not verified)
May 9, 2006 5:55 PM

Both my husband's grandfather and mine were named William. My husband has an uncle named for his grandfather William, and my brother was named for our grandfather William. It seemed naturally fitting for us to name our son Liam - my husband is half Irish and half African American.

That said, I've never met a black or even bi-racial man named Liam, so maybe that in itself is distinctive. Then again, the name Malcolm (as in "X") is actually Scottish. Malcolm X's mother was Scottish. But now the name has a strong African American connotation.

But politics aside, I still wonder if we should have gone with the full William. Our baby is under a year, so I suppose it's not too late to change it officially (but still call him Liam for now).

I know this is a lot, but I'd love to know people's thoughts...

By Patricia (not verified)
May 10, 2006 12:45 AM

I would leave your son's name as it is. Liam will know that his name comes from William, a favorite name on both sides of his family tree. If you were to legally change his name, not only would there be the legal procedure and some cost, but you'd need to tell relatives and friends that "our son's name is now William Samemiddlename Lastname", with explanation to follow. More confusion in school too, with his given name as 'William', but going by 'Liam'.

Too, Liam has been climbing the SSA baby name charts as an independent name: #112 in 2004 (William was #8).

We named our first son Edward after my father (Erwin Edward, called 'Ted'), but always called our son 'Teddy'/later 'Ted'. A British friend asked why we didn't just name him Teddy or Ted. As an adult our son goes by Ted A. Lastname.

Your Liam may also prefer that the name he is called by--'Liam'--is his legal name, particularly since not everyone realizes that Liam is a derivative of William.

By Valerie (not verified)
May 10, 2006 4:35 PM

Fascinating discussion- pparticularly as we are considering the name William ourselves...

I happen to disagree with Patricia- I always think it's a good idea to give the baby a full name rather than a diminutive and then he/she will have options later on.

By the way, while we're on the subject, I usually say a diminutive when it's a shortened version of a name (or should it be derivative?), but I'm noticing that many people in the States call that a nick name. In England, a nickname is something else entirely- like Stinky or Four Eyes!

By Helen (not verified)
May 11, 2006 6:30 PM

I know a biracial boy named Liam (white mother, African-American father). He's five. So your son is not alone!

By Patricia (not verified)
May 11, 2006 8:04 PM

Valerie, I too am strongly in favor of giving a baby the complete standard from of a name, regardless of the diminutive he/she will be called. We did this with each of our children's names.

But in the case of mjohnson, her son already has a birth certificate, birth announcement, perhaps other documents, with 'Liam' as his given name. Had she asked the question before Liam was born, I would have suggested she and her husband name him William even though they planned to call him Liam. But after the fact, I would leave his name as is.

(If the child had been named Willie or Billy, that would be another matter, as both sound like diminutives and not formal enough for a grown man.)

It seems to me that Liam is more of a derivative than a diminutive because it is often used as a given name, although it was originally derived from William. And because William is usually pronounced with 2 syllables--as 'WIL-yum,' many people don't seem to realize that Liam comes from WIL-li-am.

By Patricia (not verified)
May 11, 2006 8:08 PM

As for one's ethnicity and naming, some parents like to match their child's given names to their last name, while many others choose the name they like best regardless of

By Patricia (not verified)
May 11, 2006 8:26 PM

...whether the child's name matches their family's last name and their own ethnic backgrounds. An example: when the French name Michelle was all the rage, there were--and still are--'Michelles' of every ethnicity.

Through adoption, my husband and I have a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family. We gave each of our kids an English name because our last name/their last name is an English name.

We have African American grandchildren named Kristyn, Anthony and Isabella; an ethnically Vietnamese-Ecuadorian grandson named Christopher EnglishLastName; a fully ethnically Korean grandson named David Mingyu English-AmericanLastName; our Irish-Australian/Korean-American grandson Aidan IrishLastName; Mexican-Korean-American twin grandsons named James & Andrew SpanishLastName, etc.

Our immigrant Vietnamese friends named their children Megan and Thomas, with Vietnamese middle names.

I think most 'standard' given names are fine for any child growing up in America.

By fred (not verified)
May 12, 2006 7:12 PM

Which is the more popular spelling? Grayson or Greyson?

By Helen (not verified)
May 12, 2006 11:25 PM

I only know one person with that name. He's three years old and his name is spelled "Greyson."

By Tansey (not verified)
May 17, 2006 3:08 AM

In Commonwealth countries there was a sharp increase in the number of Williams after Diana Princess of Wales named her eldest son in 1982.Two years later Harry became the name du jour after her second son was born.
I understand although Liam is a diminutive of William, in Celtic countries it is a name in its own right.

By Simon (not verified)
May 24, 2006 3:35 AM

Over the years I've known quite a few Williams that go by their middle names. Perhaps this has resulted from mutliple Williams in the family; I never asked any. The phenomenon of going by one's middle name is interesting to me and I'd love to hear Laura's thoughts on it. Seems to be far more common for males than females. Perhaps it interests me because I don't have a middle name and always felt deprived. Both of my siblings have middle names.

By Kate (not verified)
May 29, 2006 1:48 PM

My brother is a William born in the UK in 1978 and he has never been known as Bill or Billy - he's always just been William. the most we shorten it to is Will.

By Kate (not verified)
May 29, 2006 1:52 PM

By the way, when I was born in 1971 my mum liked the name Kate but was persuaded to name me the full version of the name - Katherine - so I have the proper name which can be shortened. Kate is often used as a name in its own right but was originally just a diminutive of Katherine.

There is a really stupid trend in the UK right now to give short forms of names as given names - Charlie, Archie, Alfie, Freddie, etc are the best known. To me they sound like pets names, not something that should be given to a child. After all they do not stay a baby for the rest of their life and a fat balding middle aged man may prefer to be known as "Alfred" rather than "Alfie"! But the mothers consider the full versions ugly (Chalres, Archibald, Alfred) and just want the diminutives. How stupid!

By jenna (not verified)
November 15, 2006 6:21 PM

hi i am trying to find an unusual name to go with ellie hope you can hellp me thank you jenna

By kirrily L. (not verified)
June 28, 2007 11:21 AM

Hi could you write something on the name kristyn? please!

By kirrily L. (not verified)
June 28, 2007 11:29 AM

What about Elsie or Ember or Elise or if it's a boy what about Elmo or Edgar or you could look on baby names .com they have tons of great names I just looked here cause I wanted to find some thing on the name Kristyn. good luck

By Amber (not verified)
June 28, 2007 4:12 PM

wat about the name Kristyn its weird how som peeps spell it
i mean ive seen over ten differant ways!

By sm (not verified)
September 6, 2007 10:58 PM

My son will be the III, (3rd). What are some nick names for boys that are the III?

By emily (not verified)
January 11, 2008 2:59 PM

heya! Amazing site!
the name David has been in the SSA top 20 for the last decade- i'd be interested to know if any of it's derivatives has been in the top 100 as well!
i'm doing some research on the name David. I was wondering if anyone could give me a list of all the derivatives and diminutives used as names in their own rite, of David.
thanks so much.

By WillORNG (not verified)
May 14, 2008 1:24 PM

My grandfather was William known as Bill,
My dad William George known as George
I'm William known as William til my 30s,now Will
My son is William Peter known as Peter...thought this causes some problems.

My grandfather and dad were born in County Durham in the 1900s/40s, I in South Africa in the late 60s and my son in Nottinghamshire in the mid 90s.

There were no other boys my name until my last years in Sixth Form so when a mother screeches "William...", never a short version, in a supermarket, it takes me way back to my childhood!

Moving for work to Nottingham I now tend to get called Bill by locals, very much a northern trait, but it was my grandfather who was northern and a product of Edwardian Imperial England, not me, one of the uncertain post-Imperial UK.

Funniest story was friend of friends who were Irish Catholic and called there son Billy...!!! It was only when they went back to Northern Ireland that they realised their mistake, William and Prine Billy being Militant Anglo-Saxon/English Protestant names!

By WillORNG (not verified)
May 14, 2008 1:27 PM

Your right spot on Kate.

'e' names are pretty infantile, far better to give the full version and leave people with options to change...if they wish.